Ray Lambert is almost done with his four years of school, and he already has a steady income at a good job.
"I absolutely love it. It's something different every day. There's always a problem to be solved," he says.
Lambert is a building engineer for an apartment management company in McLean, Va. He does the tasks that many city-dwellers take for granted: making sure the boilers and air conditioning are working, for example. Tonight, he has come early to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 99's office, a modest building in an upscale section of Washington, D.C. The 27-year-old from Herndon, Va., sips a bottle of soda and relaxes as he waits for classes to start for the night. He has good reason to relax: secure job prospects for years to come.
"This is a very specific trade; you have to know electricity, HVAC, you have to know everything. And it becomes very widely sought-after," he says.
Lambert is not about to graduate from college; he's about to finish an apprenticeship with the IUOE. And unlike the undergraduates down the street at Georgetown University, many of whom are doubtless toiling away at unpaid internships and furiously emailing resumes, he currently earns a comfortable living. And he won't have to sweat student loans; his program is free, aside from books and union dues, which according a training coordinator with the program tend to run students $49 to $59, depending on their pay.
Though apprenticeship programs vary, many are variations on a theme: students spend a few years learning a trade both in the classroom and at an assigned job site. Throughout that training, students' pay slowly increases along with their experience. In Lambert's program, for example, a student starts out earning 50 percent of what the engineer at his site earns. By the second semester of the fourth year, that share is up to 85 percent. The site engineers who work with the D.C. IUOE program tend to make $30 to $38 per hour—that equals around $62,000 to $79,000 a year for a 40-hour workweek. That means that pay for a starting apprentice can be well over $30,000—a pay level you can't earn handing out towels at the college rec center.
Why isn't this kind of education more popular? In the U.S., more high school students likely hear about the Donald Trump kind of apprentice than the IUOE kind. There are around 398,000 registered apprentices in the United States, according to the Labor Department (that count includes apprenticeship programs like many led by labor unions and run by individual companies, but not apprentice-like positions, like hospital interns). That's not a tiny number, but it's down significantly from a decade ago; in 2003, there were nearly 490,000 apprentices in the nation. U.S. apprenticeship numbers are also dwarfed by figures from even much smaller countries. Germany's apprenticeship system trains around 1.5 million people per year, with apprentices accounting for around two-thirds of the total working population. Many credit that system for the country's low youth unemployment rate in comparison to fellow troubled Euro zone countries. Germany's centuries-old system is often cited as a model for other countries. The U.K., seeing Germany's success, is trying to ramp up its own program, in which more than half a million people began apprenticeships last year.
A Question of Culture ... and Unionization
Could the U.S. emulate Europe's apprenticeship systems?
The answer depends on whom you ask. "In the United States, it's just not in our DNA," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "It's a process that's almost unimaginable in the U.S.: it's a collaborative, joint governing system that represents the workers and the employer and the government." It's not just a collaboration between the workers and the firms; it requires a certain amount of government oversight. The Department of Labor, for example, is involved in the certification process by which registered apprentices get nationally recognized credentials. But some businesses may see that as government meddling in business' training processes.
To create more apprenticeships on a massive scale would also require a shift in worldview for some companies; many companies simply wait for educated and qualified workers to come to them, then teach them a few extra skills that they might need to know at that particular firms. In apprenticeships, businesses take an active role in formalized education processes.
Carnevale also believes that an apprenticeship system depends on strong unions. After all, many programs like the one at IUOE can only run because local companies pay into it—it's a partnership between a union and the private sector. Carnevale also points out that unionization has been on the decline in America for decades. As recently as the late 1970s, nearly one quarter of all workers were union members. As of 2011, less than half that share—barely 12 percent—were in unions.
Still, the union model is not the only model. Some companies that require very specialized skills run their own programs.
"There's nothing prohibiting industries from developing their own talent," says Greg Chambers, director of compliance at Oberg Industries, a Pittsburgh-area precision manufacturer. "You can grow your own."
He says that training ends up being one percent of his company's sales—"it's a big penny; I'm saying gross sales, not profits," he stresses—and takes his workers an average of three to four years to master the requisite skills. However, he says all of the investment is worth it, because he gets exactly the workers he wants, avoiding the "skills mismatch" that many manufacturers have bemoaned in recent years. And it's worth it for his workers too, he believes, as they get a certification that is recognized nationwide.
"The benefits way outweigh the expenses for our type of industry. It's do or die. If we don't train
them, we can't do our job."
The Unrealistic Dream of College for Everyone
Even if the U.S. could greatly expand its apprenticeship program, would it be a good idea? It might boost the economy, but the benefit might come at the expense of economic mobility, say critics.
To understand why, 1983 is a good place to start. That year, President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education published "A Nation at Risk," a broad-reaching assessment of the country's education system. The commission recommended heavier emphasis on math, science, English, and other academic pursuits for high school students, rather than vocational training.
"In America what we decided to do in '83, and to great applause, is we said that every kid's going to get a solid academic education through high school," says Carnevale. The "academic education" stressed core courses like English, science, math, and social studies—coursework designed to get students into college. The reforms inspired by that commission helped to implant the view that every student can and should go to college into the national psyche. It also meant that students were steered away from classes that introduced them to some marketable job skills.
The idea was that preparing every student for college gives everyone equal opportunity. Otherwise, students might be unnecessarily "tracked" away from learning calculus and into learning basic electrician skills...and poor and minority students in particular might be steered away from college. That fear is well-founded, says one expert.
"We used to have vocational programs and vocational schools, and it's true that they really were tracked a lot by social class," says Peter Cookson, senior fellow at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank. Those programs, as well as some in Europe right now, he says, create a sort of de facto caste system.
"In places in Europe, I don't want to pretend these aren't class-based programs," Cookson says.
But then again, steering all students away from learning career and technical skills in high school means that the dream of upward mobility can become a curse.
Gaps in Education and the Workforce
Forcing all students to read Salinger and learn cosines contributes to dropout rates, says Carenvale. And when students are denied the introduction to technical education in high school, it creates a gap in the education system and steers those students away from careers that they could do without a college degree.
"There's a missing middle in the American system. There has been since the '80s." says Carnevale.
Educational gaps mean gaps in the job market. The Manufacturing Institute and consulting firm Deloitte reported in 2011 that there were nearly 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the U.S., largely due to under-qualified candidates. This could be one area where an apprenticeship system seems like it could help; when employers have a stake in training employees, they can train them for precisely the qualifications they're looking for.
One way to encourage students into vocational education and apprenticeships without risking further class divides, says Cookson, is making sure that students know that career education, whether in high school or after graduation, does not necessarily have to be a "lesser" course.
"There's usually apprenticeship systems where young men and women learn advanced skills. It isn't just really learning how to change oil in the car," he says.
For his part, Ray Lambert says he saw that apprenticeship was a good path early on. As the fourth generation in his family to take on an operating engineer apprenticeship, he had a good look at the career path long before he joined this program. Though he went to trade school to become a certified welder first, he ultimately chose to follow in his father's footsteps.
While Lambert had an early introduction to his career path, Chambers believes that not enough people get that opportunity, as educators, not just students, have taken their eyes off of technical skills.
"What happens is a lot of vocational system has become dumping grounds," says Chambers. Those vocational programs that are still around, he says, become home to the students who couldn't make it in the academic tracks, as administrators focus on how many students they can send to college. As a result, students are by and large not prepared for jobs that currently exist in the manufacturing field. Better training earlier on, he says, would make his program's training much easier.
"If [schools] are not held accountable for vocational ed, it's a fallback. We're going to lose our manufacturing expertise as a country because of it," he says.
Though "tracking" may be a concern for the public education system, the beauty of apprenticeship is that it's a meritocracy, says Sean Myers, assistant director of the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, which trains electrical and telecommunications workers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He says he has no knowledge of the socioeconomic backgrounds of his program's apprentices, but no amount of nepotism or ability to pay hefty tuitions is going to give any student a leg up.
"One of the good things about apprenticeship is you have to perform. And if you perform, you move forward," says Myers.
The students at IUOE are definitely learning far more than how to tighten a few nuts and bolts. While Ray Lambert waits for his class to start, Phil Wildemann, a first-year apprenticeship instructor, explains boiler maintenance to 19 men in jeans and work shirts. The lesson ranges from the chemistry of natural gas to how to regulate fuel pressure in a boiler, with Powerpoint presentations illustrating the complex machinery involved in heating a building.
Joining the program can mean a lifetime of sitting in these lessons. As more and more buildings go green, equipment is changing, meaning that workers need to continue their education long after the apprenticeship program is over. Lambert points to his dad, a maintenance supervisor at North Carolina State University and a former apprentice himself.
"Green is now the thing. My dad's still taking classes now," he says. "This is just the beginning."